Poetry in motion
Regular Bird Watching contributor Rosamond Richardson has produced a book that demonstrates her love of birdwatching and frustration with Man’s impact on the world
BW contributor Rosamond Richardson’s new book declares her love for birds and nature
ROSAMOND RICHARDSON came to birdwatching late. Perhaps that’s why she’s so passionate about birds – any birds – and the effect they can have on your life. Perhaps it’s why she’s also angry, and frustrated, about Man’s impact on the natural world, and our stubborn refusal to learn from our mistakes. Those emotions suffuse her new book, Waiting For The Albino Dunnock. Her writing – personal, elegiac and existing in that space where prose and poetry collide – will be familiar to long-term readers of Bird Watching, but here it’s shaped into a powerful argument for watching birds for their own sake. Nowadays, that means watching her own cottage garden in north Essex, and the surrounding countryside, but the vital spark came in 2009, at Mycenae, in Greece, on a walk in the hills looking for wild tortoises. A friend pointed out bird after bird, including a Woodchat Shrike, and that encounter proved to be epiphanic. As the book explains, Rosamond found herself rediscovering an old love – natural history – and finding a new one – birds. Born in Oxford and brought up in Cambridge, she says her dream was always to live in a cottage in the woods. A cottage in a quiet rural village is reasonably close, but it was time spent living in the sort of arable desert that so much of lowland Britain has become that held the roots of her book’s quietly insistent argument. “Lots of Cambridgeshire can be a nightmare for birders. What you see there is such a murderous way of farming. “I think eight years or so living in the ‘grain belt’ stimulated my love of birds. The frustration of that has made me passionate about them.” Before that Greek encounter, Rosamond’s main interests in the natural world were botanical, as the author of books on wild flowers, and organic cooking and food. “Hedgerow Cookery was the first book I wrote. It was triggered by Richard Mabey’s Food For Free. I started to find my own recipes and discovered that I loved it”, she says. After the success of that 1980 book, she copresented a BBC2 series, Discovering Hedgerows (another book accompanied it), and became a campaigner on various environmental issues. “It all starts in the soil – poison the land and deplete the soil and the problems start. Effectively, mankind has been engaged in one big chemical experiment. When you go somewhere like Lord Melchett’s Courtyard Farm, in Norfolk, on a summer’s day, and see all the wild flowers as they should be, it’s like walking into a lost Eden. Or at Woodwalton Fen, where you can see an entire ecology as it should be.” The book, Waiting For the Albino Dunnock (it takes its title from an anecdote about the great Welsh poet, birdwatcher and clergyman RS Thomas), and Rosamond in person, are unflinchingly realistic about the future of the natural world, and humanity. “Birds have been here much longer than us, after all. They’re still close to dinosaurs. It depends on how we behave who falls off the branch first, and at the moment we’re really not making a success of it. The next thing will evolve and replace us. We lack a wisdom gene to pass on, so we end up starting from zero each time.” But despite the strength of its message, the book
Birds have been here much longer than us, after all. They’re still close to dinosaurs. It depends on how we behave who falls off the branch first, and at the moment we’re really not making a success of it
is no political tract. Rosamond describes the two years spent writing it as “pure joy”, and that joy and surprise comes through in each of her encounters with birds. Its presence is the most powerful argument of all for conserving what we have left. “When that epiphany happened in Greece, I was ready for it. I realised that we miss how simply beautiful birds are a lot of the time, and also their mystery. There’s a transcendent element that we really don’t understand. I had to find a way of approaching that, so I wrote about beauty because that affects you in a different place. “Birds awaken the philosopher in me. I think we can be too narrow-visioned when we’re arguing about ecology. “We’re interconnected with everything – not masters of nature, and we need to feel that awe and wonder at something we don’t understand. Great quantum physicists admit the mystery in their field of study, and birds represent that mystery for me. That draws me into writing about it, about things that are beyond our frame of consciousness,” she adds. That respect for the unknowable elements of nature also permeates the book, and Rosamond is clear that attempts to create a wider interest in the natural world and conservation shouldn’t come at its expense. “I do have a big problem with natural history programmes, because there’s just too much anthropomorphism, and there’s also increasingly the attitude that nature is there to help us. It’s not, that’s facile. Writers like Richard Mabey respect its indifference. For me, the ‘cure’ is its beauty and its savageness. Nature is what it is.” Rosamond’s own birdwatching starts at home, as she explains: “I have a proper cottage garden. It looks gorgeous most of the year, and I get a good number of birds. A neighbour gave me a bird list from 1976, and it’s almost the same as now. I see Sky Larks in the fields up behind the cottage, too, but I think a lot of the countryside, verges and open spaces are overmanicured here, and reserves can turn into nothing much more than zoos.” Favourite birding spots include the Ouse Washes, for their “wonderful bleakness”, and Dingle Marshes on the Suffolk coast. “It’s bliss,” she says. “Last time I was there I saw things like Red-necked Grebe, and I kept putting up Shore Larks, or you can have chance encounters with Bearded Tits.” She enjoys, she says, the crossing of paths with birders you’ll never see again, and the way other birders will show you their finds through their scopes. Current favourite birds include Short-eared Owls, although their near relative the Long-eared Owl is one she longs to see. But rather like RS Thomas, she sees the search for, and sometimes the absence of, birds, as being as important as the actual encounters with them. “Part of the pleasure of birdwatching is the habitat and place, and part of it is silence. A silent hide is a great thing.” That silence, she says, changed her life. It could change yours, too.
EPIPHANY Rosamond Richardson’s love of birds was sparked by a visit to Greece in 2009 TORTOISE SEARCH Rosamond was looking for wild tortoises, when she discovered her love of birds!
LARK ASCENDING Sky Larks sing near Rosamond’s Essex cottage WOODCHAT SHRIKE A friend pointing out Woodchat Shrikes in Greece inspired the birdwatcher in Rosamond